Improving the gender balance in schools

I first learned about gender imbalance when I read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, a book which uses evidence and studies to depict the differences in females and males as created by society, neurosexism and our own minds. As a woman in science, the implications for a gender imbalance sometimes catch you off guard. Whether it be an off-handed comment about a female in physics or a male in nursing, a study revealing the prevalence of stereotype threat or a statistic for the rate of sexual assault of females in a male dominated field.

Example of student response to “draw a scientist”

At Mount Alexander College, we are fortunate enough to have an incredibly enthusiastic and passionate careers counsellor, Jens Boernemeyer. Jens is completing his PhD on women in STEM alongside working full time and raising 2 boys with his wife. At the end of 2018, the opportunity arose to apply for a $5,000 fellowship in our school and Jens had begun to make contact with an organisation which aims to improve the gender balance in Scotland. So it began. We wrote up a proposal, were successful in our application, then we went through the three layers of approval for international travel and booked the flights for Scotland in the first week of term 2, 2019.

Jens had established a connection well in advance with Heather Earnshaw from Education Scotland. Heather has worked tirelessly to develop connections in schools, train program officers and develop evidence based informative documents for schools across Scotland. Heather is an incredibly kind woman with a clear passion and enthusiasm. When we finally met her, we had rich discussions, and shared what knowledge we had on the issue. Heather has a strong understanding of the barriers in place and what works to address them. She organised a number of school visits to see how they have attempted to challenge gender bias and improve the gender balance.

Nicole and Jens

Nicole Dobson and Jens Boernemeyer

Jens and I attended Woodmill High School, meeting students involved in primary school incursions, and an energetic group of female students enrolled in a robotics tournament as an all girls team. As outsiders, students were able to speak with us honestly about their interactions with teachers, how they felt about studying male dominated subjects and the changes in their confidence. One student, who could not stand still as she spoke, so eager to share her passion, even mentioned she would probably have dropped out of school if it weren’t for this program.

As many students decide whether or not science is for them by the age of 11, you cannot address the gender imbalance without moving into the primary school and early childhood learning context. Our next visit was to Shaw Mhor and Ptteuchar early learning centres. It was here that we spoke about the early formation of these gender bias ideas. Staff shared their experience of activities such as draw a scientist and draw a nurse to draw student attention to their own bias. With a huge focus on skill based learning and the introduction of STEM as a subject much like art into the timetable, students were 3D printing wheel trims for carts, designing gate systems for Little Bo Peep to better manage her sheep and solving everyday problems. An important message was that there was never explicit separation and binary of boys and girls topics, ideas, activities, books, corners, etc. Language and the suggestions we give to girls and boys as well as the way we deal with behavioural issues was an important area to reflect on for staff in tackling gender imbalance.

The team from Improving Gender Balance Scotland and Education Scotland

The team from Improving Gender Balance Scotland and Education Scotland

Then came the more top-down serious stuff, such as meeting with the key policy developers and department leaders from Education Scotland (the equivalent of the Department of Education). We discussed the layered issues and the challenge with embedding something. It was mentioned getting the public to wear seatbelts and not partake in drink driving took 20 years, and for any lasting change there needs to be comprehensive and continued efforts from all sectors. We met with Ian from Skills Development Scotland, Gayle Duffy from RAiSE, Jean Hopman from Edinburgh Science and Talat Yaqoob from Equate Scotland, all with the same message of equality, inclusion and a strong evidence backing behind what they do to connect industry, education, careers education and care taking all moving towards a more gender balanced future.

We could talk for hours about the research and discussions that have enriched our understanding of how to tackle gender imbalance, but instead we might leave you with a few take home messages:

  • Gender imbalance is an issue for both genders, less boys in biology and nursing, less girls in engineering and IT, it affects us all to have this inequality in place.
  • Research has shown that in our society there is widespread disrespect for women, high rates of domestic abuse and high rates of male suicide. These are some examples of how these issues affect us all.
  • Sometimes to bridge the gender gap, you need to hook people in with gender stereotypes. My favourite example of this from the fellowship is putting pink ribbons on building blocks. This is different to getting girls to build stereotypical girl things (like build a Barbie house), it is simply the initial way to hook students into something which might not normally appeal to them given the stereotype.
  • Stereotype threat exists and impacts on performance significantly. An example of this is the gender tick box on a maths test, studies have shown this variable alone can result in women underperforming on maths tests as a result of being reminded of their gender.
  • Improvements in a school requires strong leadership to back up the initiatives put in place.
  • To move forward, we need not make a big deal of people doing non gender stereotypical things. It should not be groundbreaking to be a male nurse or female engineer, however, at the moment in a time when there are barriers to moving into a field which you are not the predominant gender, it is significant.
  • Be careful in emphasising the importance of one subject, that you do not pit subjects against each other and devalue others inadvertently by making one domain out to be superior. This in turn reinforces stereotypes, all subjects should be valued equally.
  • Language can be central in drawing people into a career/ subject/ activity. While at Dynamic Earth we heard of how in their brochure they advertised an activity using the terms “building, coding and digital making” and 100% of attendees were male. When they changed the language to include “tinkering” 100% of the attendees were female.
  • We need to be aware of the message sent to people of colour and the intersectionality of gender, race, class, sexual orientation etc. These issues can become layered and quite complex, and ongoing conversations about what is needed should come from those experiencing these intersections of discrimination.

So what are we going to do?

Well, the plan has begun rolling with a review of the language in the school handbook, the development of a weekly email to go out to staff, an assessment of implicit bias amongst staff, student surveys, primary school incursions with a section to ‘draw a scientist’ (and revealing a real scientist who is in fact a woman).

Plan for improving the gender balance at school

Teach To Lead has empowered me to move into leadership, coach staff and have the necessary conversations to move forward. Leadership is a central component of improving the gender balance, and creating a sustained and lasting change. With the support of my coach and all I have learned in the professional development at Teach To Lead, I have a greater appreciation for what this means and how to make this initiative seamless.

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